OPM: Just Start: Unconscious Bias Office of Policy and Management OPM: Just Start: Unconscious Bias

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Unconscious bias

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Disparate outcomes for youth of different races and ethnicities do not necessarily have roots in conscious decisions. New research shows that unconscious bias, or stereotypes that we are not even aware of, can influence our decisions and lead to DMC. Researchers are able to show that many decisions we make — are made first unconsciously.

{Photo illustration of unconscious bias in the human brain}
  • The fMRI, or functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, can measure activity in different parts of the brain as a research subject is thinking or doing a task. In one experiment the participants were asked to decide which hand (right or left) they would use for a particular task and to tell the researcher when they had decided. Seven seconds before they had consciously decided which hand to use the outcome could be predicted from activity in the brain using fMRI.
    See: Nature Neuroscience, April 13, 2008
  • Continuous Flash Suppression (CFS) is a technique to keep visual stimuli invisible to the conscious brain. In experiments, participants look into a machine and see so much distracting information that they do not consciously “see” other stimuli.
  • Breaking-into-consciousness experiment for reading
    While receiving CFS, participants were asked to look for verbal expressions. Word combinations with semantic violations (e.g. I ironed coffee) became conscious before those without such violations. This shows the unconscious is reading.
  • Unconscious stimuli experiment for arithmetic
    While receiving CFS, participants were exposed to equations that were used as the unconscious stimuli (e.g. 9 – 3 – 4). Afterwards, participants were asked to pronounce a visible target number. When the visible target number was the solution to the unconscious equation (e.g. 2), participants made fewer mistakes pronouncing it than when the number was not the solution. This shows the unconscious equations influenced the pronunciation task and therefore the unconscious is doing arithmetic.
    See: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, November 27, 2012.

Bias, and especially unconscious bias, is very difficult to identify in one’s self. To see what biases you may have, take a test at the website for the Harvard Implicit Association Test.

To counteract unconscious bias, juvenile justice practitioners must:

  • Accept the fact that attitudes or stereotypes that they are unaware of can affect their decisions.
  • Find the motivation to change.
  • Increase positive contacts with youth subject to stereotypes.
  • Pay attention when unconscious bias may be happening.
  • Act on information, not assumptions.




Content Last Modified on 11/2/2016 3:15:33 PM